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State supreme courts, Judicial elections, Voter preferences, Campaign contributions, Judicial independence, Partisanship


A centuries-old controversy asks whether judicial elections are inconsistent with impartial justice. The debate is especially important because more than 90 percent of the United States’ judicial business is handled by state courts, and approximately nine in ten of all state court judges face the voters in some type of election. Using a stunning new data set of virtually all state supreme court decisions from 1995 to 1998, this paper provides empirical evidence that elected state supreme court judges routinely adjust their rulings to attract votes and campaign money. I find that judges who must be reelected by Republican voters, especially in partisan elections, tend to decide cases in accord with standard Republican policy: they are more likely to vote for businesses over individuals, for employers in labor disputes, for doctors and hospitals in medical malpractice cases, for businesses in products liability cases and tort cases generally, and against criminals in criminal appeals. Judicial behavior is correspondingly liberal for judges facing reelection by Democrats. Moreover, I find evidence that judges change their rulings when the political preferences of the voters change.

In addition, my analysis finds a strong relationship between campaign contributions and judges’ rulings. Contributions from probusiness groups, pro-labor groups, doctor groups, insurance companies, and lawyer groups increase the probability that judges will vote for the litigants favored by those interest groups. The results suggest that recent trends in judicial elections—elections becoming more contested, competitive, and expensive—may have upset the delicate balance between judicial independence and accountability. I discuss various policy solutions for reforming states’ systems.

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Duke Law Journal


Copyright © 2008 by Joanna M. Shepherd.